Small and large nonprofits alike can, at times, find working with data a difficult and mystifying chore. As pools of funding for nonprofits continue to shrink, proving your efficacy and reach becomes increasingly important. Collecting, visualizing, and forecasting data well can give you an edge, both in securing funding and improving your organization’s decision-making. One company that is working toward making data visualization easier and more accessible to all is Pittsburgh’s own BlastPoint.
Alison Alvarez and Tomer Borenstein, both from CMU, cofounded the company just one year ago. Since its inception in 2016, Alvarez and Borenstein have gone on to win $150,000 from the Forbes Fund’s UpPrize, the most well-funded social innovation challenge in our region. BlastPoint introduced itself to Pittsburgh’s larger nonprofit community at the Greater Pittsburgh Nonprofit Partnership Summit earlier this month. PCRG staff attended their conference session and got to witness firsthand the tools they have been developing. BlastPoint’s main pitch to nonprofits is that the private sector has long had the money and expertise to purchase data tools that help them make better decisions, putting the nonprofit sector at a disadvantage. When you pay to become a member of BlastPoint, you are able to access thousands of datasets that you then connect to a geographic boundary.
We were impressed with the ease and functionality of the service, and can see how it could level the playing field by putting more analytical power into the hands of smaller organizations. We hope to see even more data and visualization tools be added as they grow, and hope that their commitment to innovation remains in Pittsburgh.
Figure 1: Lindsay Angelo (CONNECT), Kathryn Schlesinger (PCRG), Caley Yakemowicz (PCRG), and Chris Sandvig (PCRG) from left to right.
From September 17-21, PCRG staff – including Chris Sandvig, Kathryn Schlesinger, and Caley Yakemowicz – attended the Rail~Volution Conference in Denver, Colorado. Over the course of the week in the Mile High City, staff had the opportunity to meet transit enthusiasts working in a range of transportation related fields, explore a range of topics around the intersection between housing and transit, and most importantly, promote Rail~Volution coming to Pittsburgh in 2018. Overall, staff had a blast exploring Denver and learning more about the social fabric of the community, with the help of many native Denver residents, along with the various economic, development, and mobility challenges that Denver has experienced over the last few decades and continues to experience. Below are two of the biggest takeaways from the conference and are reasons why you should consider joining us at next year’s Rail~Volution conference.
Rail~Volution is so much more than just a transit conference. Though it’s easy to quickly assume, this is far from the case. Rail~Volution’s motto of “building livable communities with transit” is reflected through their effort of showing the intersection between placemaking, transit-oriented development, community development, land use patterns, health, and so much more. The Rail~Volution Conference is an opportunity for a multi-sectoral approach, with attendees, key note speakers, and panelists ranging from community activists to transit officials and developers to elected officials. Dan Bartholomay, the CEO of Rail~Volution, demonstrated this approach when he announced Denver hosting Rail~Volution in 2017, stating that the “Denver community found the right mix of investments that lead to truly livable places – places that take care to ensure affordability and access to jobs, good homes and healthy lifestyles.”
Cities, Suburbs, and Rural areas across the United States are grappling with similar issues but there is no “one-size-fits-all” solution. From the east coast to the west coast, cities – of all sizes – are struggling to solve parking problems, spur equitable transit-oriented development, finance infrastructure projects, and identify solutions for mitigating the effects of gentrification and displacement. These are not problems that are unique to any place in the U.S but there are a number of factors that can impact the rate of the problem compounding: geographic size, growth factor, density, amount of investment, rate of decay, socioeconomic changes, and political forces. Transforming an urban, suburban, or rural place is incredibly challenging and complex, particularly because each place holds unique historical, cultural, and architectural features, making it difficult to replicate from one place to another.
Next fall, from October 21-24, all eyes will be on the City of Bridges as we host the 24th annual Rail~Volution Conference and continue the tradition of showcasing real world examples and innovative solutions to the challenges the Pittsburgh region has experienced over the decades around mobility, affordable housing, and economic development. Ultimately, as the press release stated announcing Rail~Volution coming to Pittsburgh, “repositioning Pittsburgh’s transit system is not just vital to maintaining the region’s highly desired quality of life; it is essential to attracting tomorrow’s innovation economy while lifting up communities not benefiting from the region’s rebirth.”
Acknowledging and celebrating the progress Pittsburgh has made over the decades is essential in changing people’s perception of the city; however, Pittsburgh, like Denver and other cities, has a lot of work to do around creating inclusive development and providing affordable housing and equitable access to opportunities. As our very own Chris Sandvig says, “For us, it’s really about how we can turn something that’s highly utilized, but often overlooked, into a reinvestment opportunity that connects more people to the opportunities Pittsburgh’s rebirth is creating.”
Located just outside the city of Pittsburgh, Bellevue, a town boasting a population of fewer than 9,000, is experiencing a collective involvement of community members with ideas and actions focused around the town’s revival. One of the goals of community leaders has been to maintain Bellevue’s historic and architectural charm while also making it attractive to new businesses, a younger demographic, and homebuyers.
Seth Zimmerman is among this group of young people who, although newer to the area, is highly involved in and passionate about Bellevue’s growth. He is the chairman of Improve the Vue, the Bellevue Initiative for Growth and Revitalization (BIGR) committee that deals with neighborhood upkeep and development. The committee has a mission to “generate and sustain efforts to improve the environment for those who live here and incite positive perceptions for visitors.” Its annual community day of service, which operates under the same name, is currently in its seventh year. This year’s event was made possible by nearly 100 volunteers from in and around the borough and over $2000 in goods and services was donated by the 27 organizations that helped sponsor the event. Service opportunities included the beautification of Lincoln Avenue (Bellevue’s main street), landscaping around local businesses, winterizing the free community herb garden, and bike and hike trail work at Bellevue Memorial Park.
“The greatest impact, I believe, is the change of attitude people are expressing about Bellevue. There is a lot of energy here, and instead of saying ‘the situation is hopeless,’ most people are very hopeful about changes that are already being made”, says Zimmerman. In a town with a total area of 1.1 square miles, a civic effort to this degree has been significant in revitalizing integrity in and feelings of connectedness to the community. Although many of the service projects maintain and enhance the “beautiful view”, Improve the Vue’s near decade-long commitment to the preservation of Bellevue speaks volumes about the steadfast spirit that is active within the community.
For the next few months, we will be introducing the PCRG community to our latest AmeriCorps VISTAs. Get to know our cohort as each member will be featured on our blog and in our newsletter! Sheena Carroll is an AmeriCorps VISTA working with Millvale Community Library.
Tell us a little about yourself: I’ve lived in Pittsburgh for the past four years and I love the arts and music scene here! I’m a poet and a singer, so I regularly perform at open mics and readings in the city. My educational background is in communication and technical writing – I graduated with a Master of Arts in English from Slippery Rock University last year. I like to keep a really busy schedule so I’m involved in a lot of other hobbies and groups, too!
Why did you decide to serve with AmeriCorps VISTA?: I was unhappy after years of working in the corporate sector. I wanted to serve my community and make a real difference. VISTA has given me the opportunity to learn outreach and resource development from a non-profit, grassroots perspective. I look forward to every day at the Library, where I get to help patrons and put my skills to use in a way that feels productive and satisfying.
What goals do you have for your service term?: I want to build the library’s capacity in terms of volunteer management, program scheduling, and best practices for public relations. I plan to develop a comprehensive best practices “branding” kit, as well as resources that library workers, volunteers, and patrons alike can utilize. I’m also taking this opportunity to gain firsthand experience in the many forms of non-profit writing.
What projects are you currently working on with VISTA?: While I’m working on the foundation of bigger projects like the best practices kit mentioned above, my typical day is spent serving Millvale in a variety of ways! For the rest of the month of October, I’ll be organizing the monthly newsletter, writing blog and social media posts, promoting our Halloween party, managing volunteers, and reaching out to donors.
What are your plans after VISTA?: I plan to pursue a career in non-profit development, preferably for either a library or educational program. I’m also going to use this year at the MCL to decide whether or not I want to pursue a graduate degree in Library Science!
Aaron Salituro is the newest arrival at PCRG. He will be serving as the new AmeriCorps VISTA Leader. Aaron will be leading a cohort of six VISTA members, each serving within the Pittsburgh community. Over the course of the next year, Aaron will be guiding members through their service by acting as a resource for them in terms of personal and professional growth. He will also be assisting in areas of recruitment, training, project management, and professional development. Get to know Aaron through his answers to the questions below!
Where are you from?
I come to Pittsburgh by way of San Antonio, Texas, but I most strongly associate with West Hartford, Connecticut and the Greater Hartford area, where I grew up and spent part the larger part of my adult life.
Tell us a little about your background:
Before assuming my current position, I completed multiple AmeriCorps VISTA terms. Most recently, from February 2015-2016, I designed and administered program evaluation and client communications projects for the San Antonio Financial Empowerment Centers, a free citywide financial counseling program based on an innovative service model from the Cities for Financial Empowerment Fund. And from August 2014-2015, I helped manage Connecticut Association for Human Services’ volunteer financial coaching initiative as a member of Points of Light’s Financial Opportunity Corps network. In addition to my VISTA service, I graduated from the Linux system administration track of the Rackspace Open Cloud Academy (OCA) shortly before relocating to Pittsburgh. This instruction led to my qualification as a Red Hat Certified System Administrator and fortified my interest in a wide range of computing topics.
What are you most excited to work on at PCRG?
Through previous VISTA assignments, I’ve developed tremendous respect for the program’s indirect service approach. Although capacity building may not always generate immediate and conspicuous outcomes, the opportunity to make a lasting impact on community makes for a uniquely rewarding experience. I hope to share this passion with the PCRG VISTA team as they navigate their year of service.
What are some of your hobbies?
Music has played an influential role in my life, most notably during my studies at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music. Although I no longer perform regularly, I’m an avid consumer of live music and look forward to sampling the rich array of cultural events Pittsburgh has to offer. I also enjoy learning more about technology and hope to obtain more IT certifications in my spare time.
Tell us a fun fact about you:
I’m a huge fan of absurdist humor, and The Eric Andre Show is my favorite thing on television right now.
What is something you love about Pittsburgh?
As a newcomer, navigating Pittsburgh’s roads has been a formidable challenge. Nevertheless, getting lost has provided far more valuable lessons in geography than any intentional exploration. Through these experiences, I’ve begun to appreciate the rich and distinctive character of each neighborhood I come across.
For more information on this newsletter, please contact Adrie Fells, AmeriCorps Outreach VISTA, at firstname.lastname@example.org or (412) 391-6732 ext. 211.